‘Citrus will only thrive in a soft and well-watered place.’ Theoprastus
I don’t know about you, folks, but it’s summer where I am. So I was reaching for a summer-y book – and what could better fit the bill than a book about lemons in Italy?
So I admit, I was a bit wary at first. The salt debacle still echoed. But Helena Attlee manages to avoid all the mistakes of the salt book, and the result is a really well-written, informative book.
This book lives on the border between travel writing and food writing, and combines the best of both worlds. She talks about beautiful gardens all over Italy, the people she meets, and the food she eats there.
And all throughout the book, her love for the subject shines through. And that’s what kept me going – to be honest, I’m not particularly interested in citrus fruits, and Italy is not my favorite holiday destination – but the author has such a passion for the subject, and such love for the people she meets, that you cannot help but want to pack your belongings and go to Italy.
She shows how the history of Italy is intrinsically linked with oranges and lemons. To be honest, if someone had asked me, I’d guessed that tomatoes were the quintessential Italian fruit, but after reading this book, it’s clear that the lemon is second to none.
The lemon gave rise to the Venetian Doges, it decided the fate of popes, and it is the origin story of the Italian Mafia.
Not kidding. So. (This might have been my favorite passage of the book, so I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting this story in full, but it’s good and explains a lot about Italy, even to this day.)
Lemon orchards are a good, but large investment. Citrus trees don’t bear fruit until they are three years old, and it’s eight years before they produce a proper crop. This and the fact that most orchards were / are located in stony parcels of land, which had to be cleared, irrigated, protected from winds and thieves, and accessible.
This combination of large upfront investments and slow returns made landowners understandably nervous. There was just too much stuff that could go wrong: the water feeding the irrigation channels cut be cut off, the lemons could be stolen from the trees, the harvest might not turn out alright. And their worries weren’t even over by the time the fruit was picked and on its way to the customer – their product is both perishable and easily destroyed, so all kinds of accidents could happen, and they would never see their money’s worth.
All of this, of course, presented the ideal cesspool for a protection racket.
Originally, the mafiosi were the richest landowners in the area. They offered to protect their neighbours’ interests by using their own staff as wardens, workers and armed guards, and of course they were only too happy to supply water or install water pumps for farmers who could not afford to dig wells of their own. For a small fee, of course.
They also drew up water contracts based on an impenetrable system of arcane traditions that allowed them to raise prices to extortionate levels whenever rainfall was low. But who are you going to complain to?
And then, the mafiosi also acted as wholesale fruit merchants and brokers. They basically integrated the entire production chain. They bought the fruit when it was still on the tree, and then brought their own workers to pick them.
As soon as a sale was agreed, a single fruit was nailed to the outside of the door in the wall of the citrus garden and shotgun cartridge was often attached alongside it as a warning to potential intruders. As you do.
Oh, and they ALSO owned the hauliers who took the fruit to the docks, and the dockers who loaded it on the ship. It was, quite simply, impossible to sell your fruit without using the mafia infrastructure.
They gained control of every aspect of cultivation from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, after which the prices of lemon dropped too low to be of interest for the criminal racket, so instead, they used their existing international trading system for a product of much more value and profit: drugs.
I love tidbits of knowledge like that, mostly because it tells you so much about Italy in a single story – the poverty of the landowners, the absence of a functioning state, the fact that the Mafia was there before the Italian government.
But please don’t let the above keep you from reading this book – it is mostly about lemons and how to prepare them and where they grow, and it’s beautifully written. I think this a book to be read in a garden in summer. So if you are still looking for a book for your summer vacation, I’d highly recommend this one!!
And next week – so I’m reading two books right now, it depends which one I finish first!!